Four Faces of Nicholas—
Who is he in his hometown?
Saint Nicholas looks four very different ways in Demre, formerly Myra, where he served as bishop and lived most of his life. Four prominent statues offer competing Nicholas images, showing him as Father Christmas, an Orthodox bishop, or like the Western Santa Claus. Differing ideologies are behind these alternate visions of the saint who has become a nearly universal gift-giver. For some he is a benevolent figure, caring for children. For others, he is first and foremost, one of the most important saints of the church. Still others see him simply as a jolly, secular and commercial symbol for holiday cheer.
How to picture St. Nicholas is a particular challenge in modern-day Turkey—a country that is 99.8% Muslim,* yet officially a secular state. Tour guides say many come to find the historic and religious Christian saint. Others want to understand the cultural and historic roots of America’s popular Santa Claus. Some just believe the red-suited Santa has simply replaced earlier understandings and images.
The first public statue of St. Nicholas is a genial Father Christmas who stands in the garden of the Church of St. Nicholas. The large bronze benevolent figure wears a hooded robe, carries a gift bag over his shoulder, and is surrounded by three children. For almost twenty years, from 1981 until 2000, this the only Demre St. Nicholas.
In December 2000 Russian sculptor Gregory Pototsky and Moscow mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, presented Demre with a striking bronze Orthodox Saint Nicholas. This figure, dressed in the vestments of an Orthodox bishop, stood atop a globe of the world. The globe itself was on a tall plinth in the town square, right in front of the Church of St. Nicholas. Busloads—up to eighty a day in the summertime—brought Russian tourists and pilgrims who knelt and prayed at the base of the statue.
A new image appeared in February 2005, when the Demre town council removed the bronze Christian saint, replacing it with a bright bakelite Santa Claus. Demoted from the top of the world, the bronze saint is now tucked into a space in the courtyard wall outside the church. Santa held forth above the street, arm raised to ring a large bell. Demre officials said Santa is universally recognized and more popular, because he belongs to the whole world.
This change was controversial. International protests have come from Russia, the European Union, the Netherlands, and the United States. Despite pressure from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, wanting to preserve good relations with Russia, Santa still stood until December 2008.
The most recent image, a new “Turkish Santa,” was unveiled Christmas Day, 2008. Sculptor Necdet Can called the statue, “the authentic Santa of Likia. I was careful while making the features of the face and tried to make it look like Turks.” The sculpture, commissioned by the Culture Ministry, is fiberglass over an iron frame. Another sculptor, Fray Okkan, commented that the statue doesn’t look like Saint Nicholas who lived in the 4th century. Turks didn’t arrive in Antalolia until the 11th Century. So the controversy continues—who is Saint Nicholas and how does he look in his hometown?
Four images of Nicholas in Myra (Demre) —
Which do you think is most appropriate?
Update, January 2018: The 2008 Turkish “Santa Claus” statue was removed during construction work in the square in front of the church. Following completion of the work, the statue has not been replaced. The former Turkish Culture Minister Ertugrul Günay says the statue’s location is unknown. Demre District Mayor Süley Topςu, however, says, “The statue has not disappeared. We will find a good place for it and then relocate it there. It is being held in the depot of the municipality right now. We have not yet determined where to put it but we will try to place it at an appropriate time.”
Demre Today: Church or Museum?
St. Nicholas Church, Myra (Demre/Kale), Photos
Divine Liturgy: Church of Saint Nicholas in Demre, 2009
Divine Liturgy, Church of St. Nicholas, Demre: More Photos
Myra in Lycia: The Church in Demre
Myra: Reflection on a first visit
An International fight over the bones of Santa Claus
Santa replaces Saint: A Russian View in Russian with photos
Russian response to demolition of Demre monument: A copy is installed in Russia in Russian with photos
Turkish Government Declares Church a Museum, not a Church
Turkish town cashes in on Saint Nick legacy, CNN, December 10, 2010
“Brou-ho-ho ensues over statue of Santa,” Chicago Tribune, March 10, 2005
“No Turkish delight as Santa knocks Nick off,” Reuters, March 14, 2005
“Turkish Town Exchanges St. Nick for Santa,” Washington Post, March 23, 2005
“M.F.A. Takes Initiative to Restore Santa Claus Statue,” Turkish Press, April 8, 2005
“Ankara intervenes in Santa Claus row in Antalya,” Turkish Daily News, April 9, 2005
“Santa Claus statue row in Turkey,” BBC News, April 25, 2005
“Reactions continue to the Statue of St. Nicholas,” Land of Lights, weekly newspaper, Fethiye, Turkey, May 2005
“The Changing Face of Old St. NIck,” Reason Online, June 2005
“Church of St Nicholas open to local mufti, but closed for mass on the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas,” Asia News, December 7, 2005
“Uproar in the Muslim world but why not in Turkey?” Pravda, February 14, 2006
“Turkey gets new Saint Nicholas statue” journalistinturkey.com, December 23, 2008
“Domestic Minister unveils ‘real’ Santa statue” Hurriyet DailyNews.com, December 26, 2008
“Santa Claus of Anatolia Discussion in Antalya” World Bulletin, Turkey Press Scan on December 23, 2008
“Removal of Santa Claus statue stirs debate in Turkey’s Antalya” Hurriyet DailyNews.com, January 4, 2018
* Source: World Factbook